The basics of education in Indiana

The basics of Tony Bennett: A reform star’s rise and fall

PHOTO: Photo by Kyle Stokes courtesy of StateImpact Indiana

This story is one in a series exploring the basics of key issues in education in Indiana. For a list of the issues and links to the other stories in the series, go here.

In 2011, Tony Bennett was such a national education star as Indiana’s state superintendent that he literally went to Washington, D.C., and walked away with the title Education Reform Idol.

Technically, he accepted the title on behalf of his state, in a quirky contest put on by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington group that advocates for high academic standards and school choice. But Bennett was the star of the show, which was broadcast live online. He playfully mocked rival states Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, and Florida while vigorously trumpeting changes he helped lead in the Hoosier state.

At the time, Bennett’s national fans could not have imagined that little more than a year later, he would be voted out of office — or that his comeback job, as education commissioner in Florida, would end abruptly after seven months amid charges that he manipulated school grading rules and broke campaign ethics laws during his time in Indiana.

Bennett’s story as an education leader has been one of jarring reversals of fortune, from basketball coach to superintendent, from small-town Indiana to the state capitol, and — most recently — from national prominence to a battle to reclaim his reputation.

A push for change

Bennett spent most of his life in southern Indiana. He was born in Jeffersonville, raised in Clarksville, and went to Catholic schools. He got into coaching basketball and became a science teacher while earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Indiana University Southeast. He later earned a doctorate from Kentucky’s Spalding University.

He became assistant superintendent in New Albany in 2001 and superintendent in Greater Clark County Schools in 2007 before deciding to run for state superintendent in 2008. He was quickly embraced by Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, who appeared in television ads with Bennett. During the campaign, Bennett pushed for free market reforms, such as school choice, reducing bureaucracy, and redirecting spending from administration toward classroom instruction. He won 52 percent of the vote over Democrat Richard Wood, who had been superintendent of Lafayette’s Tippecanoe schools.

Bennett quickly set about pushing for greater accountability. He added new factors to the state’s school grading system, including a “growth” measure of students gains on state test results and new data points measuring students’ “college and career readiness.” He warned the state’s lowest-scoring schools that he would invoke a new state law to intervene if they continued to fail for six straight years.

He pushed to use a new test, IREAD3, to assure third graders could read, and prevent those who couldn’t from moving on to fourth grade. By the end of 2010, Bennett also championed the state’s adoption of Common Core standards. Bennett worked with the National Governors Associations and a consortium of states to advocate nationally for the Common Core.

He established new academic goals for the state—90 percent passing the state ISTEP test, 25 percent of high school graduates earning college credit, and a 90 percent high school graduation rate. And to track Indiana’s progress, he placed an electric scoreboard outside his office. Indiana fell short of all three in his four years, but made gains toward each.

National acclaim

Bennett began making powerful friends around the country who were pushing similar reforms elsewhere, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New York’s then school chancellor Joel Klein, and speaking engagements soon followed.

Bennett also increasingly did battle with teachers unions, most notably over the state’s Race to the Top grant application. The state passed on a chance for $250 million in federal aid when Bennett could not get the Indiana State Teachers Association to sign on to the application. Bennett ended the effort when the union’s then-president, Nate Schnellenberger, declined to attend a meeting that Bennett insisted be open to to the public to discuss Bennett’s plan for the grant and why the union was refusing to support it. Schnellenberger dismissed the meeting as a “media circus.”

In 2011, Bennett helped Daniels successfully advocate for a series of major education changes in the legislature, despite strong opposition from unions and Democrats.

One bill established a new private school voucher program, allowing low-income families to redirect tax dollars meant for their children’s public school education toward private-school tuition. The legislature also expanded the authority to “sponsor” charter schools to private universities in an effort to seed more charter schools. (Charter school sponsors open and then oversee the schools.)

Another bill limited teacher union bargaining to just pay and benefits, taking away the right to bargain over work conditions such as class size and after school meeting requirements. Finally, lawmakers approved a fourth major bill requiring an overhaul in Indiana’s teacher evaluation system, requiring annual evaluations, and including student test score growth as one of several factors.

In 2012, Bennett made good on his promise to enforce school accountability, urging the Indiana State Board of Education to take over five schools: four in Indianapolis and one in Gary. The schools had all been given six consecutive F grades by the state. Bennett selected three charter school organizations to run the schools independently, severing them from their school districts.

2012 Election

Bennett prepared to seek reelection with aggressive fundraising. By Election Day, he had raised $1.8 million, five times more than his Democratic opponent, Glenda Ritz. Ritz was an award-winning teacher working as a librarian in Indianapolis’s Washington Township and new to politics. She was also president of her local teachers union and active with the state teacher’s union, ISTA, which funded most of her campaign.

Despite large disparities in money and name recognition, Ritz mounted an aggressive word-of-mouth and social media campaign, relying heavily on teachers, especially those active in unions, to spread the word of her candidacy in their personal and social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Ritz argued Bennett’s approach was too dependent on standardized tests, tapping into a growing national backlash against too much testing. She also echoed another national argument that school choice programs like those Bennett championed merely turned schools over to private companies aimed at making profits.

Bennett ran a more traditional campaign, with TV commercials and campaign appearances around the state. He declined Ritz’s offer for a series of debates, agreeing instead to a pair of joint appearances.

The election produced a shocking result when Ritz defeated Bennett with 52 percent of the vote. A shaken Bennett thanked his supporters and took responsibility for the defeat, saying his rhetoric was too blunt at times.

But Bennett soon had another opportunity. He was invited to apply for the post of education commissioner of Florida, an equivalent post to state superintendent, but appointed rather than elected. After false starts with other candidates, Florida Gov. Rick Scott appointed Bennett.

Email controversy

Bennett’s Florida tenure came to an end almost as quickly as it began when, in July of 2013, Indiana journalists obtained emails written by Bennett and his staff through public records requests. The resulting news stories produced political fallout in both states. In his emails, Bennett raised questions about a state grade that was about to be assigned to a charter school run by a former contributor to his campaign, Christel DeHaan. DeHaan’s Christel House Academy charter school in Indianapolis had a long track record of A grades, but it was about to be assigned a C.

The emails showed that Bennett’s staff began exploring several routes to raising the school’s grade before settling on a rule change for schools with unusual grade level configurations. Christel House served grades K to 10. The new rule exempted the school from being judged on some high school measures, raising Christel House to an A. Twelve other schools statewide also received higher grades. Critics said the emails showed Bennett and his team so favored charter schools he was willing to rig the system to benefit them.

Days later, Bennett resigned in Florida, saying he didn’t want the Indiana controversy to impede school reform efforts in the Sunshine State. Later, consultants selected by Indiana’s Republican legislative leaders reviewed the emails and Bennett’s actions, calling the rule alterations by his office that changed A to F grades “plausible.”

Bennett’s backers suggested Ritz was behind the scandal, accusing her and her staff of mining Bennett’s emails and targeting him. In her first year Ritz repeatedly clashed with Indiana State Board Education over A to F grading and has been working on an overhaul of the grading factors. Ritz’s communications director, David Galvin, later acknowledged discovering the emails and turning them over to the state ethics commission.

The commission later brought charges against Bennett, as a result of the emails. Besides discussing Christel House’s grade change, Bennett and his lieutenants traded messages about his re-election effort. The complaint alleged Bennett illegally used the resources of his state office to support his political campaign.

Bennett’s emails revealed occasional communication about campaign events and activities. Also found on the server where emails were kept were two Republican donor lists. Bennett hired a high-powered legal team for his defense, and won a partial victory. He was found guilty of violating ethics law by a state panel and agreed to pay a $5,000 fine as part of a settlement for spending his work time and office computers and telephones for his campaign. The commission, however, noted Bennett could have avoided even that penalty. Indiana law permits elected officials to campaign from their offices as long as they establish policies allowing it, which Bennett never did.

The ethics commission did not explore the ethical implications of the actions of Bennett or his team regarding the state grading system, accepting the conclusions of the state’s investigation.

In late 2014, there were new revelations that a never-released report on Bennett’s actions suggested he could have faced federal charges, but they never came.

Looking ahead

Since his departure, Bennett’s Republican allies in Indiana have fought to try keep Indiana on the path he blazed. While there have been some changes — lawmakers ordered a rewrite of way test score growth was measured under Bennett, for example — mostly the changes he helped institute have continued.

Bennett’s next move remains to be seen. He moved back to southern Indiana from Florida in 2013, and he is now working as a consultant for ACT, the testing company.


After almost 10 years of changes to Indiana classrooms, ESSA’s headed your way. Here’s what you should know about the new federal law.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students in IPS School 91's multi-age first-, second- and third-grade classroom work on math activities.

This year, Indiana education officials are focused on shifting education policy to comply with the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which Congress passed in late 2015.

But given Indiana’s history, ESSA is likely to be just the latest in a long line of education policy changes.

What started with a new schools chief focused on shaking things up in 2008 turned into major legislative changes that gave Indiana its oft-cited charter school and voucher programs in 2011.

Around the same time, Common Core standards burst on the scene, highlighting Indiana once again as an early adopter and — just a few years later — as one of the first states to jump ship. Battles over replacing ISTEP ramped up in late 2015, followed in rapid succession by an election resulting in a new governor and an upset in the race for state superintendent.

Throw ESSA into the mix, and it’s safe to say the last decade of Indiana education policy has been tumultuous. What does this new law mean for Indiana? We answer some of those questions below.

Where did ESSA come from?

U.S. lawmakers passed the newest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in late 2015 to replace the controversial No Child Left Behind Act.

The goal, in part, was to remedy a number of complaints around NCLB. State and federal officials have talked up how ESSA is supposed to give states more autonomy and remove NCLB’s rigid performance goals.

Advocates hope ESSA will bring more attention to the country’s neediest children and those most likely to be overlooked — including English-learners and students with disabilities.

What does ESSA mean for testing?

As it turns out, not that much — most of Indiana’s testing changes come down from the state, not the feds.

Indiana’s ISTEP test would have fulfilled most of the federal requirements, but the state trashed ISTEP earlier this spring in favor of a new test (still in the works) that will be given for the first time in 2019 — “ILEARN.”

For elementary and middle school students, ILEARN will be “computer-adaptive,” and adjust difficulty based on students’ answers. In high school, students would be expected to pass end-of-course assessments in Algebra, ninth-grade biology, 10th-grade English and 12th-grade U.S. Government.

The state’s plan also includes a chance to pursue giving state tests in other languages. So far, Spanish would be the focus.

How does this affect A-F grades?

Congress passing the Every Student Succeeds Act collided almost directly with Indiana’s overhauled A-F grade model, used for the first time in 2016.

Although the new model checks many boxes when it comes to new ESSA requirements, there’s still work that needs to be done.

Indiana’s new A-F model replaces one that centered primarily around ISTEP test scores. A-F grades still factor in test scores higher than other measures, but they no longer reflect just test passing rates. How students improve on tests from year to year is also included and weighted equally with passing rates.

Beginning this school year, A-F grades will include these measures (see weights here):

  • Academic achievement in the form of state test scores.
  • Test score improvement.
  • Graduation rate and a measure of “college and career readiness” for high schools.
  • Academic progress of English-language learners, measured by the WIDA test.
  • At least one aspect of school quality. For now, that will be chronic absenteeism, but the state hopes to pursue student and teacher surveys.

The last two are new to Indiana, but represent ESSA’s goal of being more inclusive and attempting to value other measures that aren’t test scores.

What about low-performing schools?

So the timeline doesn’t change — public schools can still only get four Fs in a row before the state steps in. But once they do, that’s where the process differs starting in 2018-19.

Going forward, two new categories will replace priority schools and focus schools. Two new ones will be introduced: “targeted support” and “comprehensive support.”

At schools receiving targeted support, certain groups of students — ethnic groups, English learners, low-income students or students with disabilities — would score in the bottom 5 percent of state test-takers for at least two years in a row.

Comprehensive support is similar to what are now priority schools — those that fall in the bottom 5 percent of passing state tests; any school that receives an F grade; or any high school where the four-year graduation rate is lower than 67 percent.

If a school gets a C grade or better for two years in a row, it is no longer categorized as needing comprehensive support. Schools in targeted support have five years to earn two consecutive C grades.

Doesn’t the graduation rate change, too?

Unfortunately, yes.

As early as fall of 2018, the general diploma could cease to count in the graduation rate the state is now required to report to the federal government.

The federal calculation will likely cause rates to drop and school A-F grades to take a hit because general diploma students students would no longer be considered graduates to the feds.

Students can still earn a general diploma — it just can’t factor into state accountability grades. ESSA requires states to count graduates that earn the diploma that a majority of students get or one that is more rigorous, but not one that is less.

What happens next?

There are still some major questions lingering over how the new A-F grade components will play out next year, particularly when it comes to dual credit classes and changes to graduation rate.

Those issues won’t get solved right away, if only because the Indiana State Board of Education must officially approve any A-F grade system changes, which won’t happen until after the ESSA draft plan is completed.

The plan must be submitted to federal education officials in September. First it gets a review from the governor, who can choose to endorse it or not — no formal approval is required.

Read more of Indiana’s ESSA coverage here.


The basics of...

The basics of Jennifer McCormick: Political newcomer struggles to set herself apart

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Jennifer McCormick speaks during a 2016 campaign event.

This is one of two stories summarizing the basics facts about Indiana’s two major party candidates for state superintendent. A more detailed story about Jennifer McCormick’s policy positions can be found here. To learn more about Glenda Ritz, go here. To see all of Chalkbeat’s “basics” stories, go here. To read all of Chalkbeat’s 2016 election coverage, go here.

Tune in to our live blog on Election Day for highlights from the field and updates on the races as results trickle in.

As the political newcomer to this year’s race for Indiana state superintendent, Republican Jennifer McCormick has had to spend a lot of time telling voters who she isn’t.

She isn’t Glenda Ritz, she’s said, emphasizing that as a former teacher and principal who has spent the last 12 years as a top administrator in the Yorktown school district, she has experience as a steady, organized manager that she says Ritz lacks.

And she says she isn’t Tony Bennett, the education reform-darling who lost in a huge upset to Ritz in 2012, either.

In fact, McCormick falls somewhere between the two: She’s a career public school educator and district leader with policies not entirely unlike Ritz’s. But she also has the backing of the Republican party and advocates who’ve pushed to expand charter schools and private school vouchers.

Although McCormick has been more supportive of charter schools and vouchers than Ritz has been, the Yorktown superintendent says she’s concerned about the way school choice efforts divert money from public schools and vehemently denies suggestions that she would want to see them expand.

On the campaign trail, McCormick has tried to steer the conversation away from controversial policy matters toward what she sees as her strong suit: Her years of leadership running schools and districts.

The New Castle native has spent her career in Yorktown, a traditional public school district in northeastern Indiana that enrolls about 2,500 students K-12. Her school district is wealthier, whiter and faces few of the challenges that confront urban and rural districts across the state.

Yorktown school board president Tom Simpson said McCormick has worked to provide more computers and tablets to students and has made a point of ensuring that teachers are trained to use and teach with the devices. She’s also worked over the years to help the district adapt to its growing population.

How she’ll govern

It’s still not clear what kind of relationship McCormick would have with lawmakers if elected. Although her policies don’t necessarily line up with those of Republican legislative leaders, the fact that she brings none of Ritz’s baggage after four years of clashes with Republican Gov. Mike Pence could ease tensions and lead to smoother working relationships.

But McCormick’s lack of policy experience and adamant statements that she won’t engage in “politics” could also mean she underestimates the work needed guide her vision through the sometimes-thorny Indiana legislature.

Plus, should both she and John Gregg, the Democrat running for governor, prevail, there’d once again be a political division between the state’s top education leader and top executive, who is responsible for appointing the majority of members to the state board of education.

On the issues

McCormick’s positions on many state education issues are similar to those of her opponent. She largely agrees with Ritz on the need for an A-F grade overhaul, more school funding, and adding support and pay for teachers.

Here’s a rundown of her positions:

Vouchers. McCormick said while she supports the power of parents to choose the best school for their children, she’s not interested in expanding programs that divert money from public schools.

Testing. While Ritz has called for a new kind of test that would be given to students in chunks throughout the year and provide feedback to teachers, McCormick said she would be in favor of adopting the SAT, or something like it, for high school students and keeping a simple, ISTEP-like test for elementary and middle school students.

Preschool. While Ritz has campaigned strongly for a “universal” preschool plan for all Indiana four year-olds, funded with what she anticipates would be $150 million per year from the state’s budget, plus federal and private grants, McCormick has called for a more conservative approach — at least at first. She says the state should prioritize students who are struggling or from low-income families rather than offer pre-K to kids with more resources.